Whatever It Takes: Where Does “Avengers: Endgame” Fall on the ‘Marvelous’ List?
SPOILERS for “Avengers-Endgame”—Nuff Said
11 years ago, I leaned over in my movie theater chair and whispered three words to my then-ten-year-old sister Anna: “That’s Tony Stark.” We had just seen Robert Downey Jr.’s genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist waltz into a seedy bar and give a talking-to to General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. This conversation included some immortal words—“We’re putting together a team”—that garnered a massive reaction from attendees. I’d missed the post-credits scene in “Iron Man” a few months before (along with, I’m assuming, several other fans not yet conditioned to the long-running tradition of Marvel’s mini epilogue teases), having left the theater with my dad midway through the credits. It was a mistake we wouldn’t make again. Therefore, it was Stark’s words, not Nick Fury’s, which bequeathed a promise to us at the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s second movie, “The Incredible Hulk.”
The Avengers were coming.
Since that moment over a decade ago, time has wrested control of life for both myself and the fictional heroes and villains of the MCU and brought us along a rather fabulous journey. My dad tends to use sports games to remember certain dates or eras. I use superhero films. The week before I graduated high school, Ben Kingsley turned out not to be the long-awaited Mandarin. After trying to catch up on some sleep following a long church lock-in, I was watching Star Lord and Co. go up against Ronan and his cronies. And I got permission to leave work early so I could drive out to a theater, enjoying some Wendys before gaping in astonishment as Thanos decimated half the universe.
It’s been a crazy, eventful eleven years. I visited Disney World, went through both high school and college, got my first job, lost all four of my grandparents, welcomed several new family members, self-published three novels, and attended three different service trips with church and college. These have been my years of adolescence, change, growth, and maturity (eh, in some cases), and the MCU was right there, growing alongside me. The comics of my childhood became the stories of my young adult years, and while the comics will continue to hold a special place for me no matter how old I get, the pivotal years and moments I’ve gone through in the past decade are better seen through the lens of this superhuman film universe.
Yes, the Avengers came. And then they united again and expanded. And then they fell before Thanos. Eleven years of moviemaking leading up to the MCU’s second movie release of 2019 and their 22nd film overall. So where does “Avengers: Endgame” stack up against the rest of the films?
I’ll spoil it right now.
I’m pretty sure it nabs the number two spot.
The Endgame is Afoot
Right now, on my “Marvelous” list, “Captain America: Civil War” holds second place, beating out the original “Iron Man” but not quite becoming as endearing as the first “Avengers.” Solid as all three movies are, the first “Avengers” movie just captures the spirit of the comics so beautifully, creating a host of characters you care about even if you’ve only seen them once or twice previously.
“Endgame” comes incredibly, incredibly close to nabbing that coveted spot, no joke. However, I’ve seen “Avengers” maybe over half a dozen times over the course of seven years. A lot of love has been built up. Nevertheless, I was entranced by “Endgame” the first time I saw it and enjoyed it just as much the second time the very next day.
So why does it work so well for me?
I can sum it up in just one word: Refreshing. The movie is delightfully different from anything’s that come before it. Common complaints of Marvel movies (particularly several Phase 1 and 2 films) include weak villains, formulaic plots, lack of stakes, sluggish action set pieces, and far too much humor. Eventually, the MCU crafted several movies that effectively combated these complaints—Thanos, Killmonger, and the Vulture are the best villains since Loki, “Thor: Ragnarok” concluded with the destruction of Asgard, “Infinity War” ended with the status quo effectively dusted—but I feel like “Endgame” solidly tackles several of these issues as it runs its narrative course.
First, the villain problem. Much of the film’s three-hour runtime really has no villain, per se. That’s primarily because (a. the Avengers tackle Thanos and chop his head off pretty early in the film and (b. most of the plot centers around undoing what the villain’s already done, not stopping a plan he intends to put into motion. Killing Thanos off took me by complete surprise, as I expected the story to be more about the purple dude’s attempts to stop the Avengers from resurrecting the half of the universe he decimated. But while a younger Thanos makes sporadic appearances throughout the film’s second act and arrives in the present with a massive army at the movie’s end, his threat does not loom over the film, unlike his “Infinity War” predecessor/chronological successor.
Instead, our heroes—Stark, Cap, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, War Machine, Nebula, and Ant Man—really go face-to-face with some more esoteric enemies. The team as a whole is really fighting what 2014 Thanos terms as “the inevitable.” He’s speaking of himself, of course, but our heroes show that, no, inevitability comes from elsewhere. It’s in the dread of not knowing what to do; it’s in Tony’s fear that he may lose his family if he undergoes this time travel mission; it’s in Hawkeye and Black Widow’s self-sacrificial attitudes on Vormir (as opposed to Thanos’ purely selfish motivations in “Infinity War” with Gamora) against death; it’s in the knowledge that they, only they, the Avengers, can bring back the fifty percent of life gone. These are incorporeal, emotional enemies, and they are everywhere.
See, Thanos isn’t inevitable. But Hawkeye or Black Widow knowing one of them must throw themselves off a cliff because they need the Soul Stone and there’s no other way to get it? That’s an inevitable decision. Tony Stark knowing he has the key to time travel and has to put the existence of who he is and what he has (Pepper and Morgan) in jeopardy to rescue what is gone if he uses said key? That’s an inevitable decision. Heck, even Stark’s understanding that him wresting the Stones from Thanos and snapping his fingers fits within Dr. Strange’s single vision of victory is inevitable. There’s an outer war waged, it’s true, but that final, absolutely climactic showdown is borne from the inner struggle. Captain America doesn’t stand one last time if he doesn’t overcome the fear washing over him. Each Avenger doesn’t contribute to the Hot Potato game with the Infinity Gauntlet if they succumb to despair. The fear, doubt, panic, uncertainty all vie for our heroes’ minds, hearts, and souls. And the Avengers stand anyway.
Tales of Timelines Past
Which brings us to this story’s plot. Critics, as I mentioned, tend to complain that MCU plotlines are straightforward, with minor variations. Take the origin stories: hero starts off less-than-heroic (an arrogant businessman, a scrawny soldier, a thief with a record) and undergoes a wild experience which gives them abilities or weapons (a dose of gamma radiation, lessons from an ancient wizard in Tibet, an exploding experimental jet engine) and sends them on the path to fight some villain who more-or-less copies the hero (guy in a suit of armor, guy with shrinking tech, guy in a panther costume). Various films have toyed with this notion of repetitiveness (neither “Black Panther” nor “Spider-Man: Homecoming” were origin stories), and a film like “Captain Marvel” even purposefully told certain events non-sequentially. But the paint-by-numbers complaints tend to hover over the franchise.
And this is where “Endgame” nicely diverges. It fails to follow the “heroes battle villain for fate of the universe” storyline for the most part, because again, most of the film is about undoing Thanos’ past actions. There’s more discussion here than anything, multiple character-driven moments that blend together beautifully once present day Thanos is dead. Tony meeting his father Howard in the past is a culmination of their relationship, as is Thor encountering his mother Frigga. Utilizing time travel to revisit moments in the franchise’s past (and also setting up rules which seem surprisingly accurate to current scientific concepts of time), the movie really is less about universe building (introducing new characters, concepts, plotlines, locations, etc.) than it is an exploration of its past history, its wonderful interconnectedness, and bringing the stories of several of our favorite characters to a close.
While the end scene does play into the “heroes versus the villain and his army of henchmen” plotline, this FEELS deserved. Other movies—like, say “Age of Ultron”—merely offered us an antagonist and his robot army because, darn it, this is an Avengers movie! But the culminating battle in “Endgame” isn’t just another excuse for crazy CGI fisticuffs. It’s the ultimate fan service moment, bringing in the characters we’ve grown to love over the last decade and using them to beat the tar out of the guy we hate for wiping out half the known universe (or, at least, the past version of that guy). If Thanos’ sharp comeuppance in the film’s beginning wasn’t enough, well then, here’s a whole whopping whomping. For a comic book fan, and for someone who has followed these films for eleven years, this is what I wanted out of a comic book movie…and the MCU delivered spectacularly.
Heroes and Hazards
In terms of stakes, then, one might argue that this film’s main narrative thoroughfare leads us to a dead-end road. We’ve been here before. The day gets saved, right? Everyone who died comes back again, yeah? And isn’t this what most of us knew would happen after the dust settled, very literally, in “Infinity War”? While this is certainly true, and while I feel positive in saying most audience members knew this would happen even prior to seeing the film, “Endgame” manages to craft several tinier elements of danger or intrigue around its heroes as they strive to bring their friends back to life. By pairing down the number of Avengers, the film gives ample time to focus on a core group of characters each undergoing some kind of transformation.
Stark enters the fray combating the knowledge he could very well be sacrificing his comfortable family life in the process (a friend of mine and I actually considered the possibility that altering the timeline would erase Morgan Stark’s existence, though the alternative consequence of Stark’s involvement was much more satisfying); Cap utilizes his inability to “move on,” seen as a crutch by other characters, as his Northern Star when confronting Thanos, culminating in a showdown where he handles Mjolnir deftly and stands momentarily alone against the villain’s hordes; Thor gets back on the wagon after falling off for five years, proving that not only is he still worthy of his hammer and title, but he is able to overcome the fears and doubts plaguing him since Thanos obliterated half his people; Hulk, with Banner’s mind and the Green Goliath’s strength, turns into someone more than a monster, his more pacifist and analytic nature making him, as he puts it, “the best of both words” (debatable, per my father); and Hawkeye and Black Widow tussle over their self-sacrificial actions, with Clint putting a reunion with his family on the line and Natasha ultimately sacrificing her chance at continuing with the family she’s found.
Yes, all these characters could die, and some of them do, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s these “inner stakes” which give these characters so much personality. This isn’t just a bunch of costumed people thwarting yet another alien invasion. These are individuals, each with their own fears and hopes, striving against those same fears to keep hope alive. Even Ant Man blatantly snaps in Stark’s face, asking him how he could be so unwilling to save what was lost. Even this tiny dude, played by a largely comedic actor in a largely comedic role, knows he needs to get serious when he has to. Nebula, too, undergoes a change, finding a place within the Avengers and learning to become more than a robotic assassin with a hatred towards her father.
The Battle to End all Battles
All this change and growth brings to the final action piece: the climactic battle against Thanos. Every MCU film has this. Whether the Avengers are saving New York from Loki or stopping Ultron from dropping Sokovia, or whether Spidey is keeping the Vulture from robbing a Quinjet or the Guardians are keeping Ego the Living Planet from conquering the universe, each movie is constructed in such a way that fans have come to expect these showdowns. Lots of CGI, lots of powers flying, lots of copy-and-paste armies for our heroes to smack around. Thus, some fans get bored. Yet, “Endgame” does this a bit differently, because the movie holds back most of the action until this final scene.
The film’s beginning does see our angry heroes kill Thanos, but that’s hardly a fight. And a bit of action does occur between this moment and the final battle—the Ancient One smashes some aliens, Nebula and Gamora battle some different aliens, etc. But the filmmakers have really attempted to make a different movie. Several times, these superhero films follow the general pacing of the comic books from which they’re inspired: hero fights villain, usually loses to villain or fails to defeat villain, then battles villain again and wins. In “The First Avenger,” Cap runs into the Red Skull part way through the film and fails to capture him before their climactic battle aboard the Skull’s plane. In “Homecoming,” Spidey interrupts a weapons deal brokered by the Vulture before later stopping his devious plan of pulling a midair heist. “Endgame” doesn’t do this, substituting plot development, time travel, and small character moments in place of the action. In this way, the film becomes more of a drama than a superhero film.
But that final battle against Thanos makes the lack of action completely worth it. Moment after moment could make you stand up in your seat and cheer. Cap proves his worthiness by wielding Mjolnir; Dr. Strange bring backs so many characters—magicians, Guardians, Wakandans, even Howard the Duck—in the film’s most fantastic moment, giving hope to both the audience and the original Avengers that help has arrived. The “tag-team” with the Gauntlet gives Spidey, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel time to shine. Heroes take on the Mad Titan, letting Captain Marvel, Scarlet Witch, and the triumvirate of Cap, Iron Man, and Thor get in several blows. And Tony’s ultimate sacrifice, giving Thanos a taste of his own medicine with the snap of his fingers, serves as the perfect ending for Iron Man. All the personal stakes collide—Cap stands defiantly, Thor battles valiantly, Tony’s loss is the universe’s win. It’s a mesmerizing whirlwind of action and fan-pleasing moments.
The Heart in the Hilarity
The humor in this film is top-notch as well. Marvel films tends to be humorous, which some critics decry as being a layer of frosting over a thin slice of story and emotion. Helps the shallow treat go down, in other words. But the humor in “Endgame” is delightfully well-done, mashing some highly original lines (“I thought you were a Build-a-Bear” is a hilarious Tony-Stark-just-being-Tony-Stark moment and “I love you 3000” is exactly the kind of inane thing a child would say) with several, several references to previous movies. “I can do this all day,” “This is a long way from Budapest,” and “On your left” are wonderful repeats of lines from other entries. Thor’s assertion he’s the “strongest Avenger,” Spidey activating and using his instant-kill mode, Hulk eating the Hulk-a-Hulk-of-Burning-Fudge flavor of ice cream, Cap getting into the elevator with the Hydra goons…this film is jam-packed with hilarious nods and winks.
And none of it hampers the flow. One of the biggest problems I have with the original “Ant Man” is the humor. It seems out of place at moments, hokey, a little forced. It tried to be too funny, ramming in as many quips as it could without letting the funny moments flow naturally. “Endgame” doesn’t really do this, partially because it balances those moments with genuine emotion. Sure, Scott Lang is funny, but when the movie allows him a few brief moments with his daughter following his escape from the Quantum Realm, or he snaps at Stark for not properly acknowledging the weight of what they’re facing, he becomes more than a comic relief character. He becomes rounded (just, uh, just like Thor). “Endgame” is definitely an amusing movie, but several of its humorous moments are visual (like the elevator scene) and don’t detract from what’s happening in the story.
Not So Marvelous (at Times)?
Of course, all the references lead to one other complaint/question: is “Endgame” too focused on pleasing fans that audiences unfamiliar with the past 21 movies (or even a working knowledge of the source material) are going to have a difficult time following the goings-on of the film itself? While I think the answer is “yes,” I’d also assert that, well, that’s the point, right? This is the final chapter of a larger story crafted over a decade of chapters. It’s a serialized tale of epic proportions delivered over the span of eleven years. For fans such as myself who have enjoyed watching these films repeatedly in that timeframe, “Endgame” is the satisfying conclusion we’ve been hoping for. Not only does it tie many threads together, but it does so while throwing in elements that fans of the franchise or the comics—Ant Man’s helmet! Cap wielding Mjolinir! Hulk holding up the compound like the mountain in “Secret Wars”! “I am Iron Man”!—will immediately recognize and appreciate.
But I will admit the film is not without its flaws, but even that boils down to a matter of personal opinion. I would have absolutely loved to have seen a more warrior-esque Thor take on Thanos; “fat Thor” was an amusing joke in the film’s beginning and an interesting progression of the Thunder God’s guilt-ridden story arc, but having him that way the whole time? A bit disappointing. And no Hulk/Thanos rematch? No chance for the big guy to get in a few licks following the pummeling he received in “Infinity War”? That’s a scene I would have loved to have seen. If anything, my complaints have to do with some of the character choices; in a movie that has so many wonderful character moments, you can only weave in so much, so there are naturally going to be complaints about moments that didn’t make it. Nevertheless, those are fairly minor when considering the entirety of the movie.
I will, however, assert that two things do not bother me: first, the time travel rules. Since time travel is a conceptual notion itself, instead of complaining about some potential bumps in the road, I would rather applaud the filmmakers for gravitating towards a different approach, rather than the stock “changing the past alters the future” concept. It’s not like they’re breaking set, scientific laws in order for the story to work. Maybe the time travel stuff doesn’t work exactly, but does it have to? I don’t want to get hung up on questions like, “Wait, how can Old Cap be sitting on that bench in 2023 if going back in time creates a diverging timeline that is separate from the current timeline everyone else is in?” Beats me, but I’ll take the good character moment over the (seeming) illogic of that scene.
Second, I’ll reaffirm what I said before: the fact that this isn’t a standalone film does not bug me. It wasn’t intended to be. Asking someone to watch only this movie and understand the full scope of the MCU is like asking someone to read the last chapter of the “Deathly Hallows” and understand the entirely of the Harry Potter series. It just can’t be done. So while part of me understands some critics may have enjoyed a more straightforward story in a film that could stand on its own easier, and while I acknowledge the complaint that others see the entire MCU rather unwieldy because of its interconnectedness, I also argue that seeing the films through their individual lenses isn’t the point of the MCU experiment. If you’re a diehard fan who’s willing to invest the time in understand the whole universe, that’s great. If you’re a more casual fan who likes certain movies and only needs to understand how those work, sure. But I don’t feel certain in saying that anyone unwilling to understand the scope of the project can rightfully complain about the MCU being too big or incomprehensible.
Could “Endgame” have been more accessible? Yeah, I suppose it could have…but if the film traded in its character-driven moments for exposition to get casual fans caught up, the story would have lagged. “Endgame” is, foremost, a conclusion to Marvel’s “Infinity Saga.” As I said, it’s the final chapter. For anyone who has yet to see the entirety of the MCU, I suggest you watch the other 21 films before seeing it. I’ll admit, it’s a lot of work, and there are plenty of better ways to use your time. But if you’ve got the extra availability to delve into a hobby and learn about this sprawling universe, there are certainly worse ways to spend your days.
And if you don’t have that time? Maybe Scott Lang with help you travel through the Quantum Realm to days of yore to see the rest of the “Saga” in theaters with the diehards and the casuals.